Baseball season is upon us, and I survey its coming with the same indifference every year. I know this pains my Dad, a lifelong Red Sox fan, but I just can’t get into baseball. I am more of a football and hockey girl, myself. I prefer the raw, hard‑hitting competition of these sports, and if I’m honest, I like the fights, too.
But having spent the last few months researching the risks of concussion in sports, I have to acknowledge that my beloved sports are in need of culture change. While the National Hockey League has taken steps to reduce risk of head injury—prohibiting blindside hits to the head, for example—it continues to allow fighting, because it is part of the game’s appeal, “necessary” even. The National Football League (NFL) has taken similar steps, banning tackles that lead with the helmet and slapping players with five-figure fines for illegal hits.
The research is clear: Repeated concussions can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative disease characterized by memory loss, aggression, depression and dementia. The leading candidates for CTE are our sports heroes. Researchers at Boston University have identified posthumous signs of CTE in a number of former professional athletes, including NHL “enforcers” Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert and NFL players Chris Henry, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Tom McHale and John Grimsley—all of whom either committed suicide or died under unusual circumstances.
Before fatally shooting himself in the chest last month, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson left a note asking that his brain be donated to BU for evaluation. Perhaps most sobering, researchers found signs of CTE in a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman who committed suicide in 2010 and had never been diagnosed with a concussion. Countless others are living with the effects of repeated brain trauma. Yes, football’s “shake it off” and hockey’s “fight for the fans” cultures need to change to protect not only professional athletes, but the young ones around the country who emulate them.
The good news is that progress is being made at various levels. The CDC has named March 2011 as Brain Injury Awareness Month and encourages school professionals, coaches, parents and athletes to learn the steps they can take to reduce the risk for concussion among young athletes. A few weeks ago, NFL Commissioner Goodell publicly announced NFL’s support of state laws designed to protect young players from brain trauma and expressed an intent to “change the culture of football” with respect to player safety. At least 11 states have passed laws that require some combination of education for coaches, athletes and parents; concussion management protocols; and return‑to‑play guidelines. View this table for a summary that tabulates state laws related to concussions in youth sports.
While some have lambasted the NFL for not acting sooner and others have questioned the League’s motivation for its current stance, from a purely public health perspective, I will file this in the win column. The public health community knows all too well that policy change is slow and culture change is slower. The NFL, an organization that is beloved and woven into our cultural fabric, has the power to affect real change from the pros to Pop Warner, and it has stepped up to the plate.
Which is exactly what my six-year-old son will do this spring. If you ask my son what he wants to be when he grows up, he will say “a professional football player.” At this, my lips say “That’s great, Little Man” while my mind says “Over my dead body.” While I love football, my son will continue on his baseball path. I am learning to appreciate the elegant intricacies of this less violent sport in order to protect my son from the life‑long effects of repeated concussions.
So while the NFL continues to keep us hanging as to whether there will be football in 2011, I’ll enjoy my Saturday mornings diamond-side cheering on a pack of 6‑year‑old aspiring Dustin Pedroias. My Dad will be proud.
This information was developed by Kerri Lowrey, senior staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.